Recruitment and retention

Why have we accepted mental and physical burnout as part of an education career?

Stubborn rates of depression, anxiety and stress mean we are burning through the education workforce. We’re unlikely to find more replacements if we keep ignoring the causes, says a well-being charity boss

Stubborn rates of depression, anxiety and stress mean we are burning through the education workforce. We’re unlikely to find more replacements if we keep ignoring the causes, says a well-being charity boss

29 Nov 2022, 5:00

The idea of a carefree childhood seems oddly antiquated. Sixteen-year-olds today have lived and been educated through an austerity and Covid sandwich, and there is good evidence – not least a widening disadvantage gap – to indicate that the generational scarring will be educational, economic and psychological. 

Meanwhile, school and college costs are rising faster than funding and mental health concerns are increasing among the young. This is hardly the stuff on which to build ambitions for national prosperity.

This is where our sixth ‘Teacher Wellbeing Index’ lands: In a system where passionate and purposeful staff are reaching into their own pockets to fund sandwiches and socks for pupils. One in which it is relatively normal to lose sleep over children who aren’t reliably washed and fed. In which education staff carry the weight of uncertainty and distress as children wait months, maybe longer, for the specialist support they need and deserve. 

They care deeply about the children and young people they work with, and the vocation tax they pay for having a deep sense of purpose is paid not just from their pockets, but also with their hearts and health.

It is unsurprising therefore that we’re seeing stubborn rates of depression, anxiety and stress in the workforce; higher than the rates seen in the general population. It’s no wonder when nearly half of all staff go to work when they feel unwell, and over half don’t feel confident talking to their employer about their mental health challenges. 

These trends, as well as the well-known workload challenges, all point to a culture of trying to ‘power through’ the stresses and strains of the job – or leaving altogether.

As we burn through those with passion and vocation, we are unlikely to find an abundance of options to replace them

The long-term health implications for anyone living with chronic stress are well evidenced. Heart disease, diabetes and stroke risk all increase when living in permanent ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. The human body just isn’t built for that. Yet we demand this every day from the people who are working to guide and inspire the next generation. 

Children and young people, incidentally, are neither oblivious nor immune to the daily stresses in schools and colleges.

This leaves us all asking: When did we accept these mental and physical health risks as a normal part of a career in education? And how much longer can we ignore the systemic drivers of staff stress and poor mental health in our education system? 

Teacher vacancies are at an all-time high. There has been a sharp rise in the proportion of school leaders leaving the profession before retirement age, citing job pressure. As we burn through those who entered the profession with passion and vocation, we are unlikely to find an abundance of options to replace them.

We have a duty to future generations of children and young people to keep talented and inspirational educators working in the sector. 

Rather like chronic stress, the longer we ignore this issue, the worse the effects will be.

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6 Comments

  1. I’m one of those teachers. Completely fed up of ridiculous paper and data pushing … box – ticking policies handed out from above that drain every bit of life out of you. My mental health has suffered terribly, I feel like a hamster on a wheel. I love ‘ teaching’ and working with the kids, I’m just not given quality time to do it anymore. So..it’s time to go after 17 years and I know I’ve still got a lot to give to teaching.

    • 26 years in teaching, two false allegations, stress related illness from the last episode, unable to work at crazy levels due to this, on “support plan” and you can see where this is going. What a totally toxic environment and who would have thought it could, but yes it is getting worse. Some complete and utter **** will say we can’t get the teachers! No you can’t keep them. Time government ministers actually paid for their mistakes rather than the rest of us.

  2. The simple answer is 1988.
    When academic achievement at any cost, metrics to be determined by politicians and civil née servants now masters, was thrust upon the population via the statutory NC.
    All of this is the inevitable consequence. Trying to get things ‘out’ of young people instead of ‘for’ them as an ethos will not be kind overall to anyone involved. Only moments of triumph for some, not long term gain for all.
    Constant measuring and monitoring has ripped the guts out of everyone. I would never return to that, no matter the financial incentives.

  3. A very on point article. I myself a teacher tha5 came to her career later in life. I have been teaching amer 4 years, 2 of which were wonderful, joyful and enabled passionate and productive teaching. Now, I am SLT phase leader, I have an incredibly challenging class with so many needs to attend to an a moment by monet basis and with that comes the cultitude of paperwork that needs to be completed to support these students. This is after managing the challenging behaviours and wild parental expectations. I have my own family of 3 at home so I shoudl prioritise them but I ahte to admit tha5 they seem to currently fall behind the work I have to complete for school. I literally never stop working and yet the todo list continues to grow, the demands continue to grow, the weight of a job I absolutley adored is becoming too much . I was determined not to be one of the teachers that leaves education within the first 5 years of their career but I fear, despite my determination and passion for my role, this workload / lifestyle is not sustainable!!! I need time and my children need their mum

  4. Diane Crampin

    To be honest…teaching in the last twenty years has always been tough. I took early retirement in my mid fifties as the trend for the young and the cheap pushed me into mental illness. Now years later speaking to my children’s contemporaries who are young teachers..frankly I despair. (My kids have forged successful careers in alternative spheres.) Who would want to be a young person with no life outside the classroom, no time to pursue interests.. in short no life? Teaching the young should be the best profession ever….how sad it is no longer.